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Olympians of MIT

Like clockwork, Valentino flew every month from his rural home to the capital city of Jakarta, Indonesia to study and compete. He was a fierce competitor and a diplomat, representing his country on the international stage against nine competitors. Valentino was in elementary school.

He would later become a gold medalist in the International Biology Olympiad.                   

Valentino Sudaryo ’19 is like a number of international students who came to MIT after—or maybe, because of—the role they played in representing their countries at the highest levels in academic competitions in high school. These students are often national heroes, yet they roam the MIT corridors like every other undergraduate.

The road to MIT for any international student is an incredibly challenging one. Each year, the number of international students applying to MIT for an undergraduate education is roughly enough to fill the entire student body.

This year, 4,299 people applied from abroad, yet only 132 were admitted, according to the Dean of MIT Admissions, Stu Schmill ’86. This admit rate of 3.1 percent for international students is significantly lower than the 7.8 percent statistic for the entire student body.

One curious observation is that a significant number of these accepted international students participated in olympiads back in high school. While the MIT admissions office does not have numbers readily available regarding olympiads, there are dozens of students who fit into this category.

What is it about olympiads that allow international students to discover MIT, apply to MIT, and then be accepted to MIT?

Korrawat Pruegsanusak ’19, who goes by James for short, is one of the students who defied the odds to be here. He hails from Hat Yai, a southern city of Thailand.

Like they were for Valentino, academic competitions were the basis of James’s childhood. He and his sister began competing after some family friends’ suggestions.

By second grade, James was already competing at the national level in mathematics.

His mother rushed to keep up with James and his sister. With little guidance from the schools, she had to learn how to get the two to Bangkok multiples times a year for various competitions.

In sixth grade, James went to his first international competition in Hong Kong. “It was good,” he said shyly of his performance in the competition. In fact, James had won gold.

James and Valentino were young to start competing, and their momentum never ceased. For multiple reasons, their impressive trajectories would later lead them to MIT.

One way for international students to differentiate themselves in the competitive arena that is MIT admissions is to apply with some olympiad medals under their belts. But olympiads are more than just resume builders.

“I really didn’t care for school,” said Allan Dos Santos Costa ’19, talking about what it was like for him before he discovered olympiads. “My life was less devoted to learning,” he chuckled.

Allan comes from a region in Brazil called Bauru. While he was always passionate about science, he didn’t come from one of the Brazilian cities in which students are trained from a young age in preparation for olympiads. For him, it was an aunt’s suggestion to start competing.

After earning his first medal, a bronze one, in the Brazilian Astronomy Olympiad, Allan’s life changed.

“If you were to meet me one year before the olympiads and one year after, you wouldn’t recognize me. I was totally a different person, I’d say.”

“The medal itself wasn’t very valuable, but it opened so many doors for me,” said Allan. “It basically allowed me to keep evolving and foster my passion for astronomy and astrophysics.”

“I kind of started understanding why most of the things I was learning in classes, why they mattered, why I should be learning them, and how I should use them.”

Allan’s story is somewhat different from James’s and Valentino’s. For one, he started competing much later. However, the transformation they all experienced due to olympiads is similar.

James talked about how much he enjoyed the challenging nature of olympiad problems and the problem-solving skills he learned from them. Furthermore, the atmosphere of working with others drove him to become a better student.

Not everyone had such a positive experience with olympiads, though. Valentino said he saw some of his friends become so fearful that they were going to lose a single competition, because they felt the stakes stakes were so high. A single loss could keep them from the international level, where they would then have a chance to change their lives by later being accepted to a top university.

For those who do excel in olympiads, though, the experience changes their thinking. Allan said that some of the most important parts he gained from the experience were “the way olympiads require you to study and the way olympiads require you to think.

It is likely for this reason that MIT loves to accept students who participate in olympiads. Whether or not the student came into olympiads with strong academic skills, those who make it through have the skills and mindset of a type of student that MIT admissions knows will thrive in the Institute.

“The olympiads are a great activity for students who love creative thinking in the sciences, and also a way for students to find a community of like-minded people,” wrote Schmill in an email to The Tech.

The community of like-minded people is also what spurs many students to consider applying abroad to places like MIT. They hear about opportunities in other countries that may not be available in their own. Valentino and Allan said they learned more about MIT from the Olympiad Community.

“After participating in [International Biology Olympiad], I had many friends and team leaders who came to me, and they were like, ‘Dude, you have to apply to these universities in China, in Japan, in Russia,’” said Allan.

It was at that point that Allan stopped studying for Brazil’s national exams and became set on studying abroad. At first, he considered schools in Asia. He even started studying Chinese.

“I had to talk with many, many people in order to decide that the U.S. was indeed the best place for me.”

Allan applied to universities in many different countries, and one of those was MIT. “Like most people who apply to MIT, I was not really considering that I would [get in],” said Allan. “So when I [got into] MIT, it was like this crazy sensation, ‘Man, you’re at the top of the world.’”

In Thailand, like in Brazil, the average student doesn’t think of traveling abroad.

“Studying abroad for Thai students or for Thai families is not that popular, but it sounds very prestigious,” said James. “For average middle class students … it’s not necessarily one of the options to study abroad.”

According to James, there are two main ways to study abroad: either be part of a “higher middle class family” or receive a scholarship. Scoring well in olympiads often provides students with the latter, as was the case for James.

After winning a gold medal in the International Physics Olympiad in twelfth grade, James received a scholarship, called the King’s Scholarship, to attend a university internationally. The scholarship program also prepares the students for the transition by sending them to a boarding school to improve their English. In James’ case, he attended Phillips Exeter in New Hampshire for a year.

James ultimately decided to attend MIT, where he now looks to study computer science. He is in good company: an overwhelming majority of the 20 Thai students at MIT participated in some olympiad, according to James.

One may then wonder if winning an olympiad medal is needed to have a good chance of getting into MIT. Valentino, for example, recalled his MIT interviewer telling him, “Don’t even think about MIT if you haven’t done olympiads.”

Schmill emphasizes that this isn’t the case. “Certainly not all, or even most of” accepted international students participated in olympiads, Schmill said. “We look for the same qualities in international applicants as we do domestic students.”

Comparing international students to domestic students may be a difficult task, but it’s possible that MIT has begun to apply more of the same holistic approach used in domestic admissions towards its international admissions.

“I’d say some years ago, it was pretty common for MIT just to gather the top of the top of the top in olympiads,” said Allan, based on his observations of other Brazillians accepted to MIT. “It was really hard for people like me [to get in], just because it’s really hard to, in two years, participate in international olympiads, and get really good medals.”

“Some years [ago], it became more common for MIT to really consider the regional situation of the person,” said Allan. “I feel like there is this trend of really considering the background, and not only the medal or the level of the [person].”

Yet, as long as olympiads are around, one can expect them to continue to turn out some of the most accomplished and promising students — ones that MIT is likely to accept.

The admissions department at MIT knows this, and so do prospective students. Rather than shying away from this connection, MIT seems to have embraced it.

“Because a lot of our students and alumni have competed in international olympiads, I hope that has had an effect of encouraging other students to participate in them,” said Schmill.